“Aye, well,” he said, resigned. “I suppose I’ll manage.”
“I suppose you will,” I said, and stood on tiptoe to brush his hair back behind his ears. Working on the same principle that causes magnets of opposing polarities to snap together when placed in close proximitry, he bent his head and kissed me.
“I had forgotten,” he said, a moment later.
“Forgotten what?” His back was warm through the thin shirt.
“Everything.” He spoke very softly, mouth against my hair. “Joy. Fear. Fear, most of all.” His hand came up and smoothed my curls away from his nose.
“I havena been afraid for a verra long time, Sassenach,” he whispered. “But now I think I am. For there is something to be lost, now.”
I drew back a little, to look up at him. His arms were locked tight around my waist, his eyes dark as bottomless water in the dimness. Then his face changed and he kissed me quickly on the forehead.
“Come along, Sassenach,” he said, taking me by the arm. “I’ll tell the men you’re my wife. The rest of it will just have to bide.”
UP IN FLAMES
The dress was a trifle lower-cut than necessary, and a bit tight in the bosom, but on the whole, not a bad fit.
“And how did you know Daphne would be the right size?” I asked, spooning up my soup.
“I said I didna bed wi’ the lasses,” Jamie replied circumspectly. “I never said I didna look at them.” He blinked at me like a large red owl—some congenital tic made him incapable of closing one eye in a wink—and I laughed.
“That gown becomes ye a good deal more than it did Daphne, though.” He cast a glance of general approval at my bosom and waved at a servingmaid carrying a platter of fresh bannocks.
Moubray’s tavern was doing a thriving dinner business. Several cuts above the snug, smoky atmosphere to be found in The World’s End and similar serious drinking establishments, Moubray’s was a large and elegant place, with an outside stair that ran up to the second floor, where a commodious dining room accommodated the appetites of Edinburgh’s prosperous tradesmen and public officials.
“Who are you at the moment?” I asked. “I heard Madame Jeanne call you ‘Monsieur Fraser’—are you Fraser in public, though?”
He shook his head and broke a bannock into his soup bowl. “No, at the moment, I’m Sawney Malcolm, Printer and Publisher.”
“Sawney? That’s a nickname for Alexander, is it? I should have thought ‘Sandy’ was more like it, especially considering your hair.” Not that his hair was sandy-colored in the least, I reflected, looking at it. It was like Bree’s hair—very thick, with a slight wave to it, and all the colors of red and gold mixed; copper and cinnamon, auburn and amber, red and roan and rufous, all mingled together.
I felt a sudden wave of longing for Bree; at the same time, I longed to untie Jamie’s hair from its formal plait and run my hands up under it, to feel the solid curve of his skull, and the soft strands tangled in my fingers. I could still recall the tickle of it, spilling loose and rich across my br**sts in the morning light.
My breath coming a little short, I bent my head to my oyster stew.
Jamie appeared not to have noticed; he added a large pat of butter to his bowl, shaking his head as he did so.
“Sawney’s what they say in the Highlands,” he informed me. “And in the Isles, too. Sandy’s more what ye’d hear in the Lowlands—or from an ignorant Sassenach.” He lifted one eyebrow at me, smiling, and raised a spoonful of the rich, fragrant stew to his mouth.
“All right,” I said. “I suppose more to the point, though—who am I?”
He had noticed, after all. I felt one large foot nudge mine, and he smiled at me over the rim of his cup.
“You’re my wife, Sassenach,” he said gruffly. “Always. No matter who I may be—you’re my wife.”
I could feel the flush of pleasure rise in my face, and see the memories of the night before reflected in his own. The tips of his ears were faintly pink.
“You don’t suppose there’s too much pepper in this stew?” I asked, swallowing another spoonful. “Are you sure, Jamie?”
“Aye,” he said. “Aye, I’m sure,” he amended, “and no, the pepper’s fine. I like a wee bit of pepper.” The foot moved slightly against mine, the toe of his shoe barely brushing my ankle.
“So I’m Mrs. Malcolm,” I said, trying out the name on my tongue. The mere fact of saying “Mrs.” gave me an absurd little thrill, like a new bride. Involuntarily, I glanced down at the silver ring on my right fourth finger.
Jamie caught the glance, and raised his cup to me.
“To Mrs. Malcolm,” he said softly, and the breathless feeling came back.
He set down the cup and took my hand; his own was big and so warm that a general feeling of glowing heat spread rapidly through my fingers. I could feel the silver ring, separate from my flesh, its metal heated by his touch.
“To have and to hold,” he said, smiling.
“From this day forward,” I said, not caring in the least that we were attracting interested glances from the other diners.
Jamie bent his head and pressed his lips against the back of my hand, an action that turned the interested glances into frank stares. A clergyman was seated across the room; he glared at us and said something to his companions, who turned round to stare. One was a small, elderly man; the other, I was surprised to see, was Mr. Wallace, my companion from the Inverness coach.
“There are private rooms upstairs,” Jamie murmured, blue eyes dancing over my knuckles, and I lost interest in Mr. Wallace.
“How interesting,” I said. “You haven’t finished your stew.”
“Damn the stew.”
“Here comes the servingmaid with the ale.”
“Devil take her.” Sharp white teeth closed gently on my knuckle, making me jerk slightly in my seat.
“People are watching you.”
“Let them, and I trust they’ve a fine day for it.”
His tongue flicked gently between my fingers.
“There’s a man in a green coat coming this way.”
“To hell—” Jamie began, when the shadow of the visitor fell upon the table.
“A good day to you, Mr. Malcolm,” said the visitor, bowing politely. “I trust I do not intrude?”
“You do,” said Jamie, straightening up but keeping his grip on my hand. He turned a cool gaze on the newcomer. “I think I do not know ye, sir?”
The gentleman, an Englishman of maybe thirty-five, quietly dressed, bowed again, not intimidated by this marked lack of hospitality.
“I have not had the pleasure of your acquaintance as yet, sir,” he said deferentially. “My master, however, bade me greet you, and inquire whether you—and your companion—might be so agreeable as to take a little wine with him.”
The tiny pause before the word “companion” was barely discernible, but Jamie caught it. His eyes narrowed.
“My wife and I,” he said, with precisely the same sort of pause before “wife,” “are otherwise engaged at the moment. Should your master wish to speak wi’ me—”
“It is Sir Percival Turner who sends to ask, sir,” the secretary—for so he must be—put in quickly. Well-bred as he was, he couldn’t resist a tiny flick of one eyebrow, as one who uses a name he expects to conjure with.
“Indeed,” said Jamie dryly. “Well, with all respect to Sir Percival, I am preoccupied at present. If you will convey him my regrets?” He bowed, with a politeness so pointed as to come within a hair of rudeness, and turned his back on the secretary. That gentleman stood for a moment, his mouth slightly open, then pivoted smartly on his heel and made his way through the scatter of tables to a door on the far side of the dining room.
“Where was I?” Jamie demanded. “Oh, aye—to hell wi’ gentlemen in green coats. Now, about these private rooms—”
“How are you going to explain me to people?” I asked.
He raised one eyebrow.
“Explain what?” He looked me up and down. “Why must I make excuses for ye? You’re no missing any limbs; you’re not poxed, hunchbacked, toothless or lame—”
“You know what I mean,” I said, kicking him lightly under the table. The lady sitting near the wall nudged her companion and widened her eyes disapprovingly at us. I smiled nonchalantly at them.
“Aye, I do,” he said, grinning. “However, what wi’ Mr. Willoughby’s activities this morning, and one thing and another, I havena had much chance to think about the matter. Perhaps I’ll just say—”
“My dear fellow, so you are married! Capital news! Simply capital! My deepest congratulations, and may I be—dare I hope to be?—the first to extend my felicitations and best wishes to your lady?”
A small, elderly gentleman in a tidy wig leaned heavily on a gold-knobbed stick, beaming genially at us both. It was the little gentleman who had been sitting with Mr. Wallace and the clergyman.
“You will pardon the minor discourtesy of my sending Johnson to fetch you earlier, I am sure,” he said deprecatingly. “It is only that my wretched infirmity prevents rapid movement, as you see.”
Jamie had risen to his feet at the appearance of the visitor, and with a polite gesture, now drew out a chair.
“You’ll join us, Sir Percival?” he said.
“Oh, no, no indeed! Shouldn’t dream of intruding on your new happiness, my dear sir. Truly, I had no idea—” Still protesting gracefully, he sank down into the proffered chair, wincing as he extended his foot beneath the table.
“I am a martyr to gout, my dear,” he confided, leaning close enough for me to smell his foul old-man’s breath beneath the wintergreen that spiced his linen.
He didn’t look corrupt, I thought—breath notwithstanding—but then appearances could be deceiving; it was only about four hours since I had been mistaken for a prostitute.
Making the best of it, Jamie called for wine, and accepted Sir Percival’s continued effusions with some grace.
“It is rather fortunate that I should have encountered you here, my dear fellow,” the elderly gentleman said, breaking off his flowery compliments at last. He laid a small, manicured hand on Jamie’s sleeve. “I had something particular to say to you. In fact, I had sent a note to the printshop, but my messenger failed to find you there.”
“Ah?” Jamie cocked an eyebrow in question.
“Yes,” Sir Percival went on. “I believe you had spoken to me—some weeks ago, I scarce recall the occasion—of your intention to travel north on business. A matter of a new press, or something of the sort?” Sir Percival had quite a sweet face, I thought, handsomely patrician despite his years, with large, guileless blue eyes.
“Aye, that’s so,” Jamie agreed courteously. “I am invited by Mr. McLeod of Perth, to see a new style of letterpress he’s recently put in use.”